Why I travel

Every time the thermostat even remotely reaches close to 40 degrees, and I find myself lying half-naked/half-conscious as close as possible to the nearest fan, I can’t help but find my mind racing back to the six weeks I spent running around South East Asia wearing horrendous happy pants, a ton of sweat and the biggest smile.

As those of you who know me well could vouch, I don’t care to dwell too much on all things emotional but that trip is somewhat of a trigger for me. Coming on two years later, I can still remember it vividly. The nerves, the smells, the heat, and even the things that were weighing on my mind back then. To me the trip has become a time capsule, and a landmark from which I base many of my present-day decisions. Would it have worried me then?

See, that trip changed my mindset immensely. It brought out a version of myself that I had never met before, and a version of myself I loved. Whether it was traveling that I fell in love with, or the person that I was when I traveled, is irrelevant. I wore the same outfit for days at a time and no make-up. I was constantly sweating and no doubt smelt. But for some god forsaken reason I was the most confident I had ever been. Things that normally worried me at home had no significance while traveling. I met people who completely changed my way of thinking, and whom to this day still bring a smile to my face when I think about them. I did things I would have never considered doing at home, which have left me with the most incredible stories to tell. And I love telling them.

So when people ask me how and why I travel as often as I do, the answer is simple. Travel has been the best investment I have ever made. It’s self-investment. And while I know that my first adventure will probably be impossible to beat for the very fact that it was my first, I will always endeavour to beat it. To find greater meaning and greater happiness. So far I have already been fortunate to have had so many amazing adventures, and have learnt something new and different from each of them. They have each shaped me into who I am today, and will no doubt continue to shape me as I journey further.

So while I sit under my fan, half-naked/half-conscious in the blistering Australian summer, thinking about travel and my conscientious decision not to do it this summer, I also think about the voucher to Flight Centre that my beautiful friends gave me for my birthday this year, and smile.

 

E.

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Japan 2015

A video from a while back when Hannah and I ran away to Japan and South Korea for the winter holidays. Unfortunately my GoPro decided to pack it in and die after the third day so this video is only a very short snippet of our adventure. Still brings a tear to my eyes though.

Barcelona Baby

After a long, bumpy and uncomfortable journey home, I am finally attempting to break my habit of always forgetting to write the last blog post of my holidays. I think it is a psychological thing of not wanting to accept the holiday is over. Or just me being lazy. Probably that, actually. But Barcelona was too wonderful to not write about. So here goes.

We spent the most time in Barcelona than anywhere else on the trip, which turned out to be a lucky thing as we ended up wasting essentially an entire day. That’s bound to happen by the end of a holiday though. So instead of writing what I did each day, I am going to simplify it and just talk about the highlights and must-dos of Barcelona.

La Boqueria Food Market
Staying at St Christopher’s Inn near La Ramblas we were super close to one of the largest and undoubtedly most spectacular food markets in Europe. Hands down one of the most GoPro-able experiences of the trip, I could easily spend hours in this place. Delicious fresh fruit juices of all different colours and flavours for just 1, cups of fresh mango for 2, sweet and savoury pasty for 2.5, seafood, meats, cheese, lollies, and everything and anything else your heart could imagine. So cheap, so fresh, so fun, and a definite must-do in Barcelona. I would argue this one experience alone is worthy of a trip to Spain. And if you are a foodie like me, I recommend you bring a paper bag because you will hyperventilate.

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We discovered a street filled with the most adorable and hipster ‘brunch’ cafes that reminded me of home. We settled on one called Brunch & Cake and were not disappointed. In retrospect I’m glad we had to wait for ten minutes to be seated because it took me about that long to decide what I wanted on the very attractive menu. And of course we had to finish up with cake because the name of the place is Brunch & Cake after all. Find it here: http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g187497-d3163747-Reviews-Brunch_Cake-Barcelona_Catalonia.html

11750643_10153574224849497_667266251151645362_nSagrada Família
Hands down one of my favourite cathedrals of the trip and we didn’t even go inside because we are stingy backpackers. This incredible church designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí looks like something out of a Dr Seuss novel. Although it remains to this day unfinished, the exterior is an absolute spectacle and arguably advocates for the use of hallucinogenic substances. There are also a few other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona that are worth checking out. We went to visit Casa Batlló which was awesome, as well as La Pedrera. Park Güell is also one of the most famous of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona and after trekking there one morning we worked out that you need to buy a ticket and they sell out fast so we missed out. Learn from my mistakes and save yourself disappointment and buy a ticket – definitely worth it. If I had just one more day in Barcelona I would have gone back. But at least now I know for sure that I will be returning to Barcelona in my lifetime to see it as well as some of Gaudí’s other work: http://www.globotreks.com/destinations/10-gaudi-buildings-barcelona/
11745821_10153574225094497_6937562951992903035_n11800325_10153574224939497_5781834071195007610_nBarceloneta Beach
Coming from Australia, I have a high standard of beaches and I honestly would not rate Barceloneta Beach high on my list. Regardless of there being absolutely no space on the “sand” even at 8pm at night, and the water being filthy it is still a must-do European experience. Embrace the lack of personal space, the incredibly tanned Europeans that make you feel like a vampire, and the hundreds of people treading on you as they try and sell you something useless. 11754878_10153574227029497_7440106860701977246_oMonjuïc Cable Car
There are two cable cars in Barcelona: one that goes across the port, and the other that goes up the mountain to Montjuïc Castle. We did the Montjuïc one, and pre-booked tickets at our hostel after the previous disappointment at Park Güell. You access it from the Montjuïc funicular (tell me that doesn’t sound fun!) which takes you halfway up the mountain. From there you jump on the cable car and get incredible views of the city on the seven-minute journey to top of the hill. Relaxing, fun, and beautiful.

Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc
Across the road from the cable car station is the Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc, a pool originally constructed for the 1992 summer Olympics diving and waterpolo events but now open to the public. We found out about this from two girls staying in our hostel room and once we got there discovered it was something of a hidden gem, only known about by locals. But may I just say, OH MY GOD. The pool is stunning and has the most magnificent panoramic view out across the city. Screw the beach, here you’ve got plenty of space, crystal clear water, and stunning views out to the city. Plus as it is not a tourist attraction as such, you can feel much more comfortable leaving your bags and going swimming together (something that is an absolute NO NO at the beach). Less than 5 to get in, it closes at 6.30pm but they don’t let anyone in after 5.30pm, so don’t miss out! It’s in my top three experiences of my whole trip. Best afternoon and the perfect compliment to climbing the hill on the cable car. Find it here: http://www.timeout.es/barcelona/es/espacios-deportivos/piscina-municipal-de-montjuic 11224573_10153574224714497_2198913154788289075_n 11698688_10153574224624497_8782864824491427411_n11705530_10153574229134497_1029367634419693921_oOther than that we did another free walking tour, the perfect way to introduce yourself to the history and sights of any city, and as a result I think I will be moving to Barcelona at some point in my life in order to explore all the incredible back alleys, food haunts, and churches (which FYI most of are free after 5pm but cost money during the day).

Jemima joined us for our last few days in Barcelona and finally Sarah got the mad clubbing experience she had been dying for. Can’t thank the girls enough for their awesome company on another fantastic adventure. Time to start planning the next trip!

Until next time, folks!

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Greetings from Granada

One of my most anticipated stops, Granada definitely delivered. After an interesting train ride there, where halfway we all got kicked off the train and instructed in Spanish to a load a buses out the door, around the corner, and across the car park (mind you this was in the middle of absolute nowhere), we arrived in Granada alive. A positive was that we bonded with a fellow traveller called Lyndon, whom was also completely and utterly confused by the process, and ended up going for dinner and drinks with her for both nights we were in Granada.

Settled in at Granada Inn Backpackers, and filled with fresh grilled calamari, we headed for the hills, and got quite lost in the Albayzín district that strangely resembled images I’ve seen of the backstreets in Greece. Two for the price of one, awesome! After what seemed like hours of walking up, we reached the Mirador San Nicolás look out, and could not be distracted from the incredible view across the valley to the Alhambra (although the young teenage couple making out in front of where everyone was taking photos gave it a good shot).  11707525_10153568852654497_7612906513413538825_n 11041037_10153568852779497_2771318323950389130_n

That night we met up with our new mate Lyndon, at a tapas bar recommended by the cute guy from the hostel called Bar La Riviera. It was here that we discovered the concept of free tapas. With every drink you order, you can choose two tapas options from the menu and they bring a plate enough for everyone at the table to eat. For free. Therefore it is economical to drink. Did I mention I like Granada?11240093_10153568851184497_7611325041498055511_n

Next morning Catherine went on a guided tour of the Alhambra, and in an attempt to ensure our day was better, we headed out early to catch a free walking tour. Eric was fantastic, even though he was a bit nervous as he informed us as his parents were part of the tour that day, and we learnt a lot about the history of Granada. He still owes me tapas though as I stunned both him, the group and myself when I perfectly guessed the height of the bell tower (57m). I think the gypsy ladies flicking rosemary around the church must have blessed me, or I’m just a genius. (Free walking tour: http://www.panchotours.com/tours-granada/tour/free-walking-tour-granada).11737973_10153568852389497_798061113727190250_n11217804_10153568851939497_5198379978072410465_n 11264858_10153568851639497_8771039461239411131_n

Next up we hopped on a bus and headed up the mountain to the Alhambra. We didn’t buy tickets because we are tight-asses, but still got to see enough of it for free. Apparently 30% of the Alhambra is free. Just make sure you get off at the Puerta de la Justicia stop before the last stop on the mountain to save yourself the walk. Although it is a good excuse to get an ice cream on a hot day. We even ended up bumping into Catherine on her tour, looking like a goof with her headphones in.11742860_10153568851289497_1302923126655887860_n 11743007_10153568851354497_6354907144267095234_n

After a quick flick through our Lonely Planet guide we decided to explore the Alcaiceria markets more, which were the old Moorish silk markets, to find one of the many tea houses or teterías that lined the Calderería Nueva. With a five page list of teas, we each selected one and relaxed in the candle-lit, bohemian teahouse. A definite hidden treasure of Granada.11755917_10153568851244497_1394163094950679448_n

When we finally returned to our accommodation to find Catherine, we also found three new roommates: two awesome girls from Australia (small world), and Tobias, our favorite costa-rican weed-loving larrikin. We got on with the girls like a house on fire and couldn’t wait to introduce them to the world of free tapas so brought them to dinner with Lyndon that night. God knows how we made it, but by 3am we were dancing up a storm in a tiny hall/nightclub in some random backstreet that was completely empty when we arrived at 1am. We still claim that we brought the party that night, but with a mixture of Beyoncé, Elvis and Spanish pop, who could resist. And nothing quite tops a night off like a gigantic plate of churros to share! I only wished I had eaten them before and not after my zumba-like dance sesh in the club.

10406771_10153568852259497_2214409896790608648_nAfter bidding our new friends goodbye, and planning a reunion once we all returned to Sydney, we hopped on a bus to the airport for a quick flight to Barcelona, baby! It was a whirlwind stop in Granada but a definite highlight of the trip. I’ll be back.

Adios!
P.s. No memory will ever surpass the one of me drunkenly ninja-kicking the bathroom cubical door at the club after Emma locked herself in there. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, maybe I did pick up some ninja moves in Japan afterall. All I know for sure though, is that it was fricken awesome. 11143417_10153568852204497_8259950756164554506_n11781664_10153568852454497_3083840934899123005_n 11760334_10153568852489497_6499775249252137034_n 10410707_10153568852559497_4360289396272756774_n 10394036_10153568852589497_7033414956053805214_n

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Sightseeing Sevilla

I am currently sitting on a plane, jet-setting to Barcelona, our final destination. Emails have already started arriving from home, as reality starts to set in. I’m a city behind on blogs and I don’t know how time has managed to escape me so quickly.

We stayed in Seville for three nights at the Cathedral Terrace apartments (http://terrazas-de-la-catedral.sevilla-hotels-spain.com/en/), with a great central location near the Bull Fighting Museum. With Sarah on board now, and also picking up (another) Emma, a friend of Sarah’s from her time in England, we planned to find the nightlife most of us by now were so desperately craving. With high hopes we were met with a (in retrospect) relatively expensive tapas bar that tried to keep my €20 as a tip, and a rather quiet night-scene. Don’t let me turn you off Seville though, we honestly didn’t look very hard because we ended up most nights on the private rooftop of our apartment, overlooking the Cathedral, with a bottle or two of Tinto de Verano until the wee hours. An attempt for class with a bottle of wine was met with quite the struggle as we realized we didn’t have a corkscrew. Difficult but proved not impossible.

As usual we started our time in the city with a free walking tour with Feel the City tours (http://www.feelthecitytours.com/en/tour/free-tour-sevilla/). A bit of a bigger group we were not as impressed as with the other tours we’d been taken on in other cities. That or maybe it was just the fact that the other English-speaking group got the hot guide. Yes, it was most likely that. We were taken around the Cathedral and shown the inscriptions that were painted on the walls in bulls’ blood to advertise an honor student, which were discovered, still intact, after the walls were cleaned recently. I incorrectly guessed that they were written in red wine, but still maintain it was a reasonable assumption for Spain.

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11694943_10153561310744497_4185498749461083701_n 11760235_10153561310589497_4209421192313231757_nWe walked by the Palace, which we later returned to and discovered for the first time ever that someone considered Sarah disabled. She got free entry as a result though, so she is most definitely going to whip that one out next time we have to pay €10 to get into a church.

11223806_10153561310519497_2783527510272176571_n 11755259_10153561310464497_4260189575692511816_nWe finished up in the stunning Plaza de España where we found out parts of Star Wars was filmed. Connected to the Plaza was a luscious green park and some much needed shade. We enjoyed it so much that we came back the next day and hired a quadracycle and rode around the park looking like morons. Much fun was had.

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Adios chicas.

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The Real Madrid

A hop, skip and a jump and we found ourselves flung 2000km across Europe to Madrid, Spain (more like a 40min Terravision bus ride and a Ryanair flight that managed to leave late but arrive early?). We found Sarah amongst the crowds of yelling Spaniards and jetted off in a taxi (splurge, I know) to our hostel, TOC.

With a new city, new country AND new companion, we took the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets, adjusting to the new language, smells, sights and most importantly food! We meandered into an incredible looking deli that turned out to have three levels to it and pointed at the picture of a seafood platter, a grilled cheese and jamon salad and a bottle of moscato. The English is not as good in Spain as in Italy, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped. It sort of adds to the excitement though, not being 100% sure of what you are going to get. We almost ordered two bottles of moscato “accidentally”. With a quick look around the shops near our hostel we finished the night off with a €12 bottle of Sangria. Free pour, baby!

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Supposed to wake up for a 9am free walking tour the next morning, we were lucky to make it to the 10am. Meeting our tour guide Juliana from ‘Sandemans New Madrid’ in the famous Plaza Mayor, she sent us around the corner to a supermarket to grab something for breakfast before we met the rest of the group. Oh My God. She sent us to heaven. This place put the SUPER in market. What turned out to be the shell of a church which was turned into an open market and then enclosed with glass panes, the San Miguel markets are beyond words. Like a gourmet tapas market, it was filled with a range of stores selling everything you could imagine in tapas style, so you could run around and fill try something from each shop. Needless to say we went back from dinner and breakfast the next morning.

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Once we reunited with the tour we were taken to the Worlds Oldest Restaurant, where we got the chance to look into the kitchen and see them preparing the most amazing looking suckling pig, as well as into the cellar which boasted bottles of wine from 1702. Legend has it that a girl once broke a bottle while in the cellar and her ghost is still seen in the kitchen cleaning dishes to pay for the damage. Eek!

We were treated to beautiful plazas and gardens surrounding the Royal Palace, churches, cafes, and fountains. We were shown the spot where an attempt was made to assassinate King Alfonso XIII on his wedding day by throwing a bouquet of flowers covering a bomb onto his bridal carriage. Unfortunately, while the bomb missed the King, it did kill 28 people and injured over 100. There is now a monument on the street and a bouquet of flowers placed on the balcony in which he stood to commemorate those lost.

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One of my favourite sites was the street with all the big banks. They were all such grand and beautiful buildings. In the middle of a large intersection sat a gorgeous fountain which Juliana told us could be drained through an underground passageway that linked the the bank’s gold vault as to drown anyone attempting to steal the gold. How James Bond is that!

After bidding Juliana farewell and tipping her appropriately, we headed to a supermarket, made some sandwiches (saving money!), tried to fit the rest of our ingredients in the overflowing hostel fridge, went for a shop on Gran Via (the main shopping street), and headed back to our beloved San Miguel Market for some paella among many other delicious treats.

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Around 10.30pm, when one would expect to be calling it a night if you weren’t already out, we headed to Puetra del Sol to meet Idoya, a local and friend of Sarah’s that she met on a train to Vienna a few years ago. Idoya kindly took us for the real Madrid experience, starting at a proper Spanish bar that she explained was easily identifiable by the florescent lights and €3 gin & tonics. After that we headed to a much trendier establishment called 1862 Dry Bar where I enjoyed at Singapore Sling, a type of cocktail that happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, made by a bartender called Jesus. We starred in a short film that happened to be being filmed there, before heading off to the final bar where we struggled to finish one of the biggest gin & tonics I have ever seen (for only €5 of course) where we met some lovely people who had been having a bet about where we were from for ten minutes before building up the courage to ask us. Sarah ended up adding one of them on Facebook as she is moving to Sydney later in the year – what a social butterfly.

Groggy morning but made it to the station and on to the train headed for Cordoba. More on that later, loving Spain so far.

Adios!

N.B. This is a link to the free tour we did, as there are lots of different groups that meet in Plaza Mayor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187514-d1913235-Reviews-SANDEMANs_NEW_Madrid_Tours-Madrid.html

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When in Rome

Our final two days in Rome and our final two days in Italy, we decided to do what you must when in Rome: the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

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Though we started early, the day was already boiling hot by 9.30am when we reached the Vatican Museum entrance. By purchasing our tickets online we managed to skip the long queue that wraps around the walls of the Vatican, as well as the bunch of people trying to sell fake tickets or tell you you need to upgrade the tickets you already had (took me back to Cambodia for a minute). The Vatican Museums are littered with incredible things to look at from marble statues to ancient Egyptian relics. We walked down hallway after hallway of beautiful and intricately decorated ceilings and wall dressings in search of the Sistine Chapel. We were not alone in our search, however and with a lack of air conditioning for most of the walk, we got to know the people around us quite intimately… The Sistine Chapel was amazing once we got there and while we weren’t awed by the silence when we walked in (instead confronted by a guard yelling orders over a megaphone) it was beautiful and we spent a good few minutes staring up.

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Next up we were off to find St Peter’s Basilica and considering it was the hottest part of the day, we decided to treat ourselves to a lovely looking cafe on the way over. Dear god. €36 for two panini. The cafe was heaving though and reminded me of my cafe back at home. Is it sad to say I miss working?

Arriving at the Basilica was monumental and so was the line! Thankfully it moved relatively quickly because I don’t think I would have managed in the sun. I might even have given in to the people trying to sell me umbrellas and scarves had Catherine not been there brutally turning them away. As I got closer to the Basilica it became more and more impressive, but it was once I was inside that my jaw really dropped. We’ve seen a fair few churches in the time we’ve been traveling so far but this one by far takes the cake. It was MASSIVE and every last inch from the windows to the walls was elaborately decorated. As the light spilled in through beautiful stained glass windows, all you could see was a sea of selfie-sticks emerging from the groups of people gathering below. We finished the visit by popping down to the Crypt to see the tombs of hundreds of Popes and read about how they had contributed to the church and faith.

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The next day was an early rise and one of the squishiest metro rides I have ever experienced. We missed the first metro but the next was only four minutes away and though we were only two rows back from the train line, we barely managed to be squished on to the carriage. It was hot, it was sweaty and though we couldn’t reach anything to hold on to, we had no room to fall anyway.

We piled out onto the metro station and raced to meet our tour group with City Wonders that was taking us around the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was a stinking hot day and our tour guide did such a great job trying to keep us all focused and hydrated throughout the tour. It was blistering hot and with no shade for majority of the tour, it was no surprise that we witnessed at least two people faint. At least we know what to do now if it happens to one of us. The Colosseum was fantastic as expected but unfortunately by the time we got to the Roman Forum I had sweated out most of my concentration and was struggling to stay conscious.
http://www.citywonders.com/en/italy/rome/rome-tours/colosseum-tour.

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After a big drink, an hour or so in the air-con and a €7 all-you-can-eat buffet, we headed off on our own adventure to find a hidden treasure in Rome called the Aventine Keyhole. If you manage to make your way up Aventine Hill, past a few parks, and all the way to the end of the road you make it to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. This building was the Roman Headquarters for the Knights of Malta and today hosts the Embassy of Malta too. While it is closed to the public if you look through the keyhole of the front gate you see an incredible view of a tree-lined path to St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately we took a very wiggled route to get there and in the blistering hot sun it was much to Catherine’s disappointment that the keyhole was just that, a keyhole. I found it thoroughly amusing though and the view absolutely beautiful. Definitely a hidden treasure, but probably worth getting a taxi to. Needless to say we can now call ourselves official adventurers. Find it here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-aventine-keyhole-rome.

Considering we had spent a bomb on lunch the previous day we had visited the local pizzeria just outside our hostel and had fallen in love with the smiley waiter who had served us, so of course we went back the next night. While he didn’t ask us for drinks this time, while we were standing on the street outside talking to a fellow traveler we had met (hey Zane!) he kept walking back and forth and waving at us, claiming he was just doing deliveries yet we never saw him deliver or collect anything…hmmmmm…we will forgive him for being charming. He even gave us a discount to come back the next night but alas we will be on our way to Spain by then!

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Roaming Rome

Okay, so either Romans were enormous or I have shrunk since I arrived in Rome. Everything is huge! The buildings, the doors, the gardens, the roads, the fountains. Everything. Oh apart from the cars, which I think they think that because they are so small they can park/leave them anywhere. They park on street corners, across pedestrian crossings (which I still don’t believe are actually pedestrian crossings), and over driveways. As long as you put your hazard lights on it’s all good to park in the middle of the street and run to the ATM. We did see a guy driving around today with his hazard lights flashing…and it was probably on purpose. Most drivers in Rome appear to be hazards. Needless to say the #fingerofshame made it to quite a few photos.

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After checking into our hostel Yellow, we wrote down everything we wanted to achieve during our time in Rome and it went a little something like this:
– Trevi Fountain
– Pantheon
– Piazza Navona
– Spanish Steps
– Vatican
– Colosseum
– Villa Borghese
– the Catacombs
– the keyhole at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta
– Castel Sant’Angelo

We’ll see how we go.

While our hostel was close to the station, it was a little walk from the major sites…although we later worked out using the metro would have worked. Anyway, we got our walk in and felt a little less guilty about demolishing a whole pizza each, plus two gelatos that night. I also feel that the best way to see a city is by walking. Some people even go so far as to say you only really find a city once you get lost in it. Poetic, really. When scrolling back through my camera though, I have countless photos of the buildings and little corner stores that you don’t see in guidebooks. In fact, it was the big tourist attractions that sort of disappointed us on our first day.

The Trevi Fountain is under construction at the moment and while you can see a little glimpse of how incredible it would have looked normally, at the moment it is just a huge pile of scaffolding. Similarly the Spanish Steps had so much work happening all around them that it was hard to frame a shot that didn’t have some sort of construction in it. Sorry to disappoint Instafans.

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Around the corner though the Pantheon is incredible and a beautiful fountain in the foreground makes for a beautiful view. I can’t get over how in Rome you just have to turn the corner and you find some monumental church or building in the middle of a square. There is nothing in Australia that quite compares. I wish I could label all my photos but honestly for most of them I have no idea what it was, I just turned a corner and found something special, something amazing, something spectacular.

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One that I can name though is the Sant’Agnese in Agone located in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Not too busy, not too big but absolutely breathtaking. You can sit there for ages just taking in all the detail, and that’s really saying something because I’m known to be a bit of a pocket rocket when it comes to sightseeing. And even better the piazza has three beautiful fountains that help to splash away some sweat (and trust me there is lots of it).

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The next day we headed for the Catacombs, buying a 3 day pass transport card (works for buses, metro, etc) and making sure we calculated how many trips we had to make to make it worthwhile. We got a little lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere but eventually hoped on the right bus which took us out to Catacombe di San Callisto. €8 with a guided tour included, we were relieved to find that the Catacombs are at a natural 15° temperature. With 20km of tunnels, we were happy to walk the 400m tour route and managed to see the most interesting archeological discoveries, with over 500,000 people and 7 popes buried there. It was like a library of bodies!

On our way back we stumbled across the Terme di Caracalla, the remenants of Emperor Caracalla’s vast bath complex, and got our first taste of Roman ruins. They were huge and it was hot. I wish there were still baths there so I could have had a swim. But regardless we got free entry because it was a Monday? Is that a thing?

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After our siesta (arguably the most important part of the day) we headed out to Villa Borghese gardens for a bike ride. As stiff competition to New York’s Central Park, the gardens had lakes inundated with turtles that you could row in, police riding horses, beautiful flowers, lovely cafes, a carousel, an old man doing mad roller-skating tricks (you’ll have to wait to see the video), bikes, segways, go-karts and golf buggies. We got bikes for an hour and managed to see most of the park and some beautiful views of Rome. It’s so convenient having sunlight for so many hours a day as it was 7pm by the time we handed the bikes back and we didn’t even realise.

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With a grumble in our tummies we headed for home. Tomorrow is the Vatican and then the Colosseum. How fast this trip is flying…I guess we must be having fun.

N.B. A MUST do when you are in Rome. Giolitti’s gelato. Not easy to find but well worth it. The line was out the door but moved really quickly. I had three scoops for €3.50 – hazelnut, cinnamon and baileys. Oh. My. God.

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Scouting out Siena

We had originally planned to head out of Florence to the nearby town of Siena on the 2nd of July as our trip conveniently coincided with the Il Palio di Siena – a famous bareback horse race around the piazza in Siena. Once we got a feel for the heat though, we soon realised that standing in the middle of a piazza for five hours in the boiling sun, surrounded by huge crowds, may not be the best of ideas. We settled for the following day and crossed our fingers that there may have been some festivities still taking place.

And right we were. After struggling to find the bus station (located behind the train station, around the corner, and down a little back street) we expertly bought our tickets for the rapid bus to Siena…because ain’t no body got time for the ordinary bus! Stepping off the bus in Siena was a particular shock to the system from the bout of air-conditioning we had been treated to for the previous 1.5 hours. The sun had definitely come to play. I was amused for some time watching crowds of people cram to one side of the road in an attempt to walk in the shade, dogs were passed out on the side of the road, and men had never seemed so happy to sit in the air-conditioned shops while their wives tried on six or seven outfits. Thankfully Italy seems to have water fountains in all their villages that have fresh water that you can fill you drink bottles up with or splash over your face providing a dog or pigeon is not passed out in it.

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Siena has a particularly medieval feel to it, and any guidebook will tell you about the aesthetic rivalry between Florence and Siena; Renaissance vs Gothic. The Duomo is incredible though and stands so crisp and intricate against its backdrop. While we sat and stared in awe, we were interrupted by the sound of drums and whistles coming from a small backstreet. Ever the curious creatures we raced to see what it was only to be confronted by the longest parade I’ve ever seen. It was as if everyone in town was out on the street, and it didn’t take us long to realise it was for the winner of the race the day before – Andrea Mari who was representing Torre (http://www.thepalio.com). They were dressed in medieval costumes and waved flags and beat drums. We would have been standing there for at least five minutes as they all walked past.

After seeing that we headed straight to the Piazza del Campo, where the race was held the day before. It was one of the biggest piazzas we have seen and we could only imagine how chaotic it would have been, oozing with people watching the race the previous day. The sun was also blistering hot and we knew we had made a wise choice. The stands were still set up outside the Palazzo Comunale on the lower side of the piazza, apparently the best viewing point as Catherine informed me that a seat there cost over €500. As we walked the loop I began to envisage the race, helped by the indents of horse hooves on the dirt track.

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The most exciting part of the day though definitely happened while eating lunch (as it normally does). We were sitting waiting for our panini when a well dressed man walked into the bar. He was greeted by a woman who had been sitting reading the newspaper when we arrived. A few men shook his hand and then they all had cheers over a glass of spritz. At midday. I knew something was up. After his female companion pointed him over to the newspaper she had been reading, I knew to turn my GoPro on and slyly point it at him. This guy was someone. When he walked away I got up and looked at the paper he had been reading, much to Catherine’s confusion as up until this point all of this analysing had gone done in my head. Sure enough, he was the man who had won the race the day before. A local celeb. I knew it, and let Catherine know just as he walked out the door. Opps.

Siena was lovely, smaller than Florence but full of some incredible buildings. Europe is so rich in history and actually looks so much better in real life than it does in the photos, which it also looks really good in. We walked down little alley ways and back streets to find incredible churches or little piazzas. Even the way their washing flutters from windows, plants dangle from hanging baskets and paint chips off the hot brick walls looks so entrancing to me. Remind me why so many people want to visit Australia?

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